(The Root) — Several weeks ago I was a guest on a New Orleans radio station talking about culture, gentrification and parallels between two Chocolate Cities: Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. I spoke of police antagonism toward Washington's indigenous go-go music and the cultural impact of gentrification on historically black neighborhoods like the area around U Street. The host, Chuck Perkins, and another guest, Loyola University's Andre Perry, spoke of the police antagonism toward Mardi Gras Indians and New Orleans' Second Line culture, and the cultural impact of gentrification in historically black neighborhoods like Treme.
We marveled at the parallels between the two cities — each with oversized black populations, airports named after black historic figures and a rich culture and history born of slavery and ongoing struggle. In the era of the urban Great Inversion, longtime residents of both cities were trying to figure out what to do when cultures as organic as the birds and the trees are suddenly forced to justify their right to just be. As one New Orleans call-in listener eloquently put it that morning: "They want to turn this place into a big ole Disneyland," he thundered. "They can't do that. That's our blood that spilled on Congo Square."
Arts and culture are early-warning systems. They foretell what happens on the policy side, and what eventually will be the new reality. In a long and thoughtful post on the Atlantic's website, Garance Franke-Ruta points out that a parade of black elected leaders, from Marion Barry onward, have been scheming for a way for affluent white residents to come back into D.C. It worked. And now she, like many newcomers, would like everyone to shut up about it. "Is bemoaning the gentrification of Washington, D.C., a genre past its prime?" she writes.
That answer really depends on whether you care about history and culture, and the basic morality of urban renewal. I personally don't spend much time worrying about U Street hipsters "swagger-jacking" black culture and turning it to kitsch, as Stephen A. Crockett Jr. so colorfully put it. But I do worry about enduring segregation inside the city. I'm worried that we are developing the city to an economic tipping point of no return. I'm worried about the train that Barry et al put into motion, and whether it can be stopped short of running over Grandma.
Changing a City's Flavor
D.C.'s pro-gentrification policies were forged of desperation in a city that since becoming majority-black in 1957, had assumed more than its fair share of the burdens of the legacy of slavery and bad urban planning. As a result, local and federal government wrote policies to reel the people with money back.
Today, four decades after the fiery riots of 1968 devastated many parts of the district, it worked. The population is back up. Trends point to a wealthier city with coffers flush with cash. Goodbye, Chocolate City. Hello, Neapolitan City.
The city is more integrated than it's been in generations, but this is no time for victory laps. Not when there is so much more work to be done mitigating the impact on vulnerable populations and maintaining an environment safe for indigenous culture.
Let's start with the outsourcing of public education — an effort for which both Chocolate Cities have served as America's lab rats. New Orleans leads the nation in the percentage of privately managed charter schools (about 70), with D.C. right behind it (just less than half). When public education is dismantled, it frays the bonds of community where culture grows. It also creates a transportation nightmare that robs us of the opportunity to let economic and racial integration do its work on neighborhood schools. The New Orleans "experiment" is getting mixed marks. In the era of so-called "choice," D.C. schools are becoming more segregated than ever.
Then there is the issue of development. Despite its success bringing in billions to develop inner-city D.C., the city keeps cooking up new ways to lure in developers as though it were 1968 and we were having a party and were worried that no one would show up. There is a push to raise the city's quirky building-height limit. We are seeing proposals, unheard of in the Chocolate era, from Republicans in Congress who want D.C. to get a commuter tax.
In my neighborhood, Bloomingdale, the mayor has proposed giving nearly $50 million in tax dollars to help a private developer build on top of the historic McMillan Sand Filtration site, a 25-acre tract of publicly owned green space. Like many of my neighbors, I personally would love to see a park there. Their plan? Yes, you guessed it: another "mixed-use" housing development.
This is a serious question familiar to many a Manhattanite: How many condos can one city take?
Affordable Housing and the Poor-People Purge
New Orleans lacks the riches of the federal government, but has similar struggles. Even before Hurricane Katrina, like many of the postindustrial, post-civil rights, majority-black urban areas, it struggled with reduced population and tax revenue, poverty and violence. Today the devastating 2005 storm is giddily spoken of by policymakers as "an opportunity" to try out new stuff.
Others, like Loyola's Andre Perry, have described the city as "one of the meanest places for poor people that I've ever seen." After Katrina, all 7,500 of New Orleans' public school employees were fired, which Perry says "severely impacted the black middle and working classes, who were thrust into poverty without jobs." Way to kick 'em when they're down. (In June — seven years later — a judge ruled the firings illegal.)
Then there is the New Jim Crow issue. Perry continued: "Poor blacks are not only more likely to be arrested and incarcerated; the new economy has simply not found spaces for gainful employment. We have celebrated innovation and entrepreneurialism among startup and young professionals — the city has not made a collective effort to find innovative ways to retrain the formerly incarcerated."
There is similar treatment to "returned citizens" leaving D.C. prisons. Despite its stable jobs market, the district has some of the most entrenched poverty in the country. What about the debt the city owes the people who stuck with it during the lean years? We owe them affordable housing, built in convenient locations. Instead, public and even just low-cost housing is being dismantled. Mayor Vince Gray's most recent budget proposal allotted for a measly 900 affordable housing units over two years and some help with the rent. This is the urban-planning equivalent of a swift kick in the rear.
In D.C. especially, if the city continues on this path of systematically purging the poor and working classes, let's not pretend it's about bringing in enough tax revenue to balance the budget. And though there is a clear and disproportionate racial impact, it's not even totally about race. At this point, it is really just about a grab for tax revenues and power in the rare U.S. city where it still pays to speculate in real estate.
The Atlantic's Franke-Ruta aptly notes that unlike D.C.'s Chinatown, which has few Chinese residents, there are still black people on U Street. I'm afraid unless there is some sort of holistic and systematic re-evaluation of the city's development policies, that won't be for long. And when the whitewash is complete, the eviction of poor and working-class people will not have been out of necessity, but pure greed.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.